Justin Howell is no stranger to tragedy. From a young age, he witnessed his sisters’ abuse and shortly after was abused himself. Despite losing his innocence at such a young age, he had the heart of a survivor. He became a well-liked boy through his humor and ability to make others laugh and he set his sights on doing good for others. This led him to join the US Military and becoming a Marine.
While Justin was deployed to Iraq in his role as a gunner, he witnessed the horrors of war with small arms fire and IEDs. His anger surged against the Iraqi Citizens. His rage and depression deepened as he heard that a friend was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Justin found himself in the same helpless feeling as he did as a child witnessing his sisters’ abuse. “I felt, as a child, I didn’t do enough to protect my sisters. In the Marine Corps, I felt the same way.”
Justin came back from deployment to a brother struggling to survive at home and had to take leave from the Marine Corps. With a duty to take care of his brother, he stayed home and became a police officer. However, the life change was stressful, though he was still serving his country it wasn’t the same as being a Marine. “The Marine Corps was my manhood,” Justin explained. Justin was not ready to be a veteran.
As Justin worked to reconcile his new reality of being home he struggled. He reverted to anger and violence, overdrinking and getting in fights at bars. Then one night he had a dream. He felt it was God telling him to change his path. Justin immediately sought out a healthy outlet for his anger and started practicing martial arts. He started attending church and even met a great girl. He thought he was getting it all together until they broke up. Her reason? She couldn’t be with a man that wasn’t honest with himself about his past hurts.
This sent Justin reeling. He started having suicidal thoughts. Then an ACL surgery led him to become addicted to pain pills. On the pills, he started having nightmares about the evils of his past. One night, it was so bad, and he was so hopeless, that he was going to shoot himself. Just at that moment, he heard from a friend telling him to listen to a song: Though You Slay Me, by Shane & Shane. He listened to the words that “every millisecond” of his pain was worth something, that he was “new and cared for”, and that he should “sing a song to the One that was all he needed”.
In that moment Justin recalled a man named Chad Robichaux that came to speak at his church. He picked up the phone and asked Chad if he could attend a Mighty Oaks Warrior Men’s Program. Chad covered the cost of the program and Justin’s church covered the flight to get him from Virginia to California. In the two weeks leading up to the program, Justin still fought the demons of suicidal thoughts telling him that if he couldn’t enjoy anything about life, then what was the point of living. But Justin won that battle and made it to Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs. While at the program Justin struggled to admit that he had issues, but he was reminded that at war he didn’t do it alone, he had a brotherhood. He specifically recalled a leader named Chris telling him, “You still need brothers. You can’t do this alone.”
As Justin found his own fight to overcome his pain he shared his story at the Men’s Program that week. He listened as others shared their stories and in that experience, he reclaimed a lost brotherhood. He came to realize that there were others facing his same battles and that in sharing struggles, healing is found. He learned that when someone else hears your story, it just may be what they need to get their fight back.
Justin left the Men’s Program restored as a Warrior, not just a survivor. He watched the trickle effect of the life change he found that week. Justin shares just one example of how God has used him since he has returned from the Mighty Oaks Warriors Men’s Program:
“I told a friend about my week at Mighty Oaks, and as a result, he didn’t commit suicide because I didn’t. He now has a wife and a newborn baby. I see it like this. We have to live like Christ. We all want to say, take this cup and let it pass from me. But He didn’t let it pass. He stuck it out. We wouldn’t be here if He didn’t.”
Justin has been back to Mighty Oaks four times. He is now a team lead, paying it forward, helping other men to grow and find hope. He continues to heal as he studies the lessons that he is assigned to teach. In each teaching assignment, God reveals something new to him. He has found a brotherhood and is building relationships.
Justin described the “secret sauce” behind Mighty Oaks as this:
“It starts with Chad and Kathy and their love and sacrifice they have given. They aligned themselves with God’s will and allowed God to use them. Then they surrounded themselves with real Veterans’ who have gone through what the men in the program are going through. But they don’t feel sorry for you. They poke you in the chest and remind you to fight; they follow that up with accountability and support. And that is how Mighty Oaks is changing lives, saving lives.”